Music and the Holocaust

Music and the Holocaust

Stephen Muir examines the impact of the Holocaust on musicians and musical life in Germany and Austria in the Second World War.

Exiled musicians

One of the earliest musical impacts of the advance of National Socialism in Germany and Austria was the flight of numerous composers into exile from continental Europe. The list of these émigré musicians includes both the most celebrated and the most neglected of all 20th-century composers. For every Kurt Weill, Bohuslav Martinů or Erich Korngold there is a Peter Gellhorn, an Egon Wellesz or an Ernst Krenek, musicians whose names have until quite recently remained largely unknown. Whilst artists were victimised by the Nazi regime for very many reasons (neither Martinů nor Krenek were Jewish, for example), it was those of Jewish origins who faced the worst levels of persecution.

Ousted from his position at the Berlin Academy of Arts in 1933, Austrian-Jewish composer Arnold Schönberg (1874–1951) sought the assistance of his former student, BBC producer Edward Clark, in gaining a foothold in Britain. He ultimately settled in California, having adopted both a renewed Jewish faith and a revised surname spelling (‘Schoenberg’). The composer never fully acculturated into his new home, and reflected deeply on the attempted extermination of his fellow Jews, notably in the 1947 cantata A Survivor from Warsaw.

Schoenberg postcard

Postcard from Arnold Schoenberg to Edward Clark, Add MS 52257

Schoenberg’s postcard to his former pupil, the British conductor, critic and music producer Edward Clark, was sent from Paris where the composer had moved together with his family in 1933 to escape Nazi Germany.

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Viennese composer Hans Gál (1890–1987) was firmly grounded in the Austro-German musical tradition, as exemplified by his glorious eight-voice Motette of 1924. Although championed by musical giants like Wilhelm Furtwängler and Richard Strauss, Gál’s directorship of the Mainz Conservatoire was abruptly terminated when the Nazis assumed power in 1933, and his music was banned. After the annexation of Austria in 1938, the Gáls left for England, and thence to Edinburgh, where the composer later became one of the instigators of the Edinburgh International Festival.

Letter from Bruno Walter to Adrian Boult (1938)

Letter from Bruno Walter to Adrian Boult, Add MS 60499

In this letter Bruno Walter shares his shock at what he describes as ‘the death of Austria’ and his acknowledgement of ‘the difficult task to adapt oneself to the new Europe’.

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Despite internment as an ‘enemy alien’ in 1940, Gál composed prolifically once established in Edinburgh, turning out symphonies, concerti, piano music, choral music, and works for ‘minority’ instruments like mandolin and recorder. But only since 2005, 15 years after his death, has renewed interest led to widespread Gál recordings and performances, reflecting the negative influence of exile and prejudice exerted over the artistic careers of most émigré composers.

In an attempt to overcome such negativity, some exiled composers adopted pseudonyms, often assimilating local popular musical idioms at the same time. Wilhelm Grosz (1894–1939), another once-prominent Viennese composer and a former student of Franz Schreker, emigrated to England in 1934, before moving to New York in 1939. Whilst Hans Gál’s music seemed too conservative (albeit deceptively so) for many commentators, Grosz’s avant garde experiments threatened obscurity for the opposite reason. Unlike Gál, however, Grosz turned his hand to film scores and popular songs, enjoying considerable international success with hits like Isle of Capri, Harbor Lights, Red Sails in the Sunset and others. But the price of success was anonymity: many of Grosz’s successful works were published under the names Will Grant, André Milos, or Hugh Williams. Ultimately, Grosz, Gál and many similar émigré musicians shared the same fate, mostly escaping the physical horrors of the Holocaust, but experiencing suspicion and the suppression of their art throughout their lifetimes.

Music-making in Second World War ghettos

Many Jewish musicians remained in continental Europe, of course, and were subsequently forced into horrendous circumstances in the Nazi ghettos and camps established across the continent. For many in this situation, artistic expression assumed an importance far beyond easy comprehension. Some survivors recall music as a vehicle for defiant rhetoric; others, a temporary but blissful escape from the horrors surrounding them; and for nearly all, it became a vital psychological survival tool, a means of retaining a semblance of normality without which all hope and sanity might disappear.

Music-making and associated artistic activities continued in most of the ghettos in the Second World War. The celebrated and largely political ‘ghetto songs’ of Warsaw, Łodz, Vilno and many other locations represented defiance and solidarity for those engaged in courageous opposition to their captivity. Hirsch Glick wrote the words of his famous song ‘Zog nit keynmol’ [‘Never say’], also known as the ‘Partizaner lid’ [‘Partisan Song’], in the Vilno Ghetto in 1943, in response to reports of the partisan uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. Set to a pre-war melody composed by Russian–Jewish musician Dmitry Pokrass, the song became a rallying call for partisans across Eastern Europe; its stirring opening and closing lines typify the message of hope engendered by those who resisted:

Never say that you have reached the very end
Our marching step will thunder: We survive!

Other types of music continued in the ghettos, too. Despite terrible conditions suffered by some 400,000 inhabitants forced into an area fit for a small fraction of that population, by the end of 1940 the Warsaw ghetto could boast an orchestra, five theatres, and a number of smaller instrumental and vocal ensembles. Along with solo singers, instrumentalists and accompanists, these groups contributed to a surprisingly vibrant concert culture in both formal and informal settings. As well as more famous names like Wladyslaw Szpilman and Diana Blumenfeld, who both survived the war, this rich and varied cultural life was sustained by numerous less prominent figures, some only now emerging from obscurity through the work of modern scholars. Two such musicians were Dovid Ayznshtat (1880–1942) and his daughter Marysia (1921–1942). As choirmaster at the Great Synagogue on Tłomackie Street, Ayznshtat directed a fine choir reputed to number around eighty boys and men. He was also one of the instigators of the Jewish Symphony Orchestra, with whom his daughter would later appear as a soprano soloist, audiences filling the thousand-seat Femina Theatre to hear her. Marysia became known as ‘the Nightingale of the Ghetto’; she and her father performed frequently together in the Sztuka Cafe on Warsaw’s Leszno Street (the ghetto’s so-called ‘Broadway’).

Dovid Ayznshtat: Chad Gadya

Froim Spektor, Dovid Ayznshtat, and Chad Gadya

This recently discovered manuscript of Jewish composer Dovid Ayznshtat’s Chad gadya, a cantata for choir and orchestra, is a very early version of this work for a cappella chorus.

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Music at Terezín

The WWII ghetto most well-known for its cultural life was Terezín (or Theresienstadt in German). Originally an army garrison, the town was used by the Nazis as a ‘holding’ camp, predominantly for Jews destined for the extermination camps at Auschwitz and Treblinka. While we must never forget that around 88,000 Terezín prisoners were deported to their deaths, and some 33,000 died in the ghetto itself because of the conditions, Terezín’s particular circumstances resulted in a short-lived but intense intellectual and artistic environment. The German authorities found it convenient to allow their prisoners a degree of freedom, even allowing instruments and sheet music into the ghetto. Prominent musicians interned in Terezín included Pavel Haas, Hans Krása, Viktor Ullmann and Gideon Klein, whose final work, the remarkable String Trio of 1944, ranks among the most powerful works composed during the war. Krása’s pre-war children’s opera Brundibár was performed more than fifty times in Terezín, including for the infamous visit of the Red Cross in 1944, an occasion exploited by the Nazis for propaganda purposes.

Cabaret and other ‘lighter’ musical forms also thrived in Terezín, and once more, it is only through the work of recent scholars that these works have come to light. Perhaps surprisingly, the vast majority were comedies, including pieces by Felix Porges, Vítězslav Horpatzky, Pavel Weisskopf and Pavel Stránský. Often the musical satire was modelled on the anti-fascist humour of Jan Werich and Jiri Voskovec, icons of pre-war Czech cabaret culture. Most of the composers and performers of Terezín met their deaths in Auschwitz and other camps; of those who survived, many have helped piece together the remnants of the art that helped them survive.

Music-making in Nazi concentration camps

Even more remarkable was the music-making that occurred in the network of concentration and extermination camps established by the Nazi powers. Unlike in the ghettos, camp-based music was largely for the benefit of the Germans, though some musicians did manage to compose and perform on their own initiative. Music was often required ‘on demand’ by camp authorities: enforced singing of songs known to be objectionable to prisoners were selected deliberately to demoralise and humiliate, as well as for more practical reasons such as keeping order or marching in time. Many camps even established their own ‘anthem’, the most notable (but by no means the only) being the Song of Börgermoor, or The Peat Bog Soldiers’ Song, the ‘signature tune’ of the Börgermoor Concentration Camp.

Many camps also had official choirs and orchestras, often supported by camp commanders as a matter of pride, and as a macabre form of competition between rival commanders. From 1936, the camp system was reordered and consolidated, and official prisoner ensembles continued at the Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, and Dachau camps. The first such group in the Auschwitz complex was formed in 1940, starting with a modest group of seven but swelling quickly to create an orchestra of 80 and a brass band of 120. Similar groups sprang up elsewhere, such as the Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the only of its kind.

These ensembles were forced to perform for a wide variety of occasions, not least to accompany (and drown out) the many punishments and executions that occured in the camps. Often they were enlisted to provide civilised entertainment for the educated German officer class, or to churn out rowdy drinking songs for the lower ranks’ more riotous parties. And perhaps most horrifically, they performed as new prisoners arrived by train in order to fool the new arrivals regarding their impending fate and thus prevent any panic.

Some prisoners did manage to compose and perform music of their own volition. A Jazz Big Band was formed in Buchenwald, for example, and in Dachau a fifty-strong classical symphony orchestra was officially launched 1942. One of the most famous examples of camp-based music-making does not even feature a Jewish composer, but rather the 31-year-old French composer Olivier Messiaen. A medical auxiliary in the French army, he was captured in 1941 and taken to a German prisoner-of-war camp. The early sketches of a piece for clarinet soon formed the basis of a trio, which with some assistance from a music-loving camp guard, developed into one of the composer’s great masterpieces, the Quatuor pour la fin du temps [Quartet for the end of time].


The summary and examples set out above can only begin to give an understanding of the impact of the Holocaust upon music and musicians in Europe; nor can it paint a true picture of the breadth and depth of musical activity that continued despite the Holocaust. And one must continually remind oneself that the lives of these musicians were not comfortable, but horrific beyond nearly all imagination. Much research still remains to be done, but in the past few decades a number of important scholars and institutions (some are listed below) have furthered our knowledge of the subject, unearthing previously forgotten works along the way. My hope is for this to continue for decades to come, so that Hitler’s expressed intent of annihilating the Jewish people and wiping out all remnants of their culture can be shown over and over to have been, ultimately, a failure.

© Dr Stephen Muir, University of Leeds (2018)

  • Stephen Muir
  • Dr Stephen Muir is Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of Leeds, specialising in Russian, East European, and Jewish musics. Since December 2014 he has been Principal Investigator of the AHRC-funded international research project Performing the Jewish Archive.